In a finding that could put an end to the use of medication in the treatment of social anxiety disorder, researchers have shown that structured talk therapy or cognitive alone has the potential to cure social phobia.
In treating patients with social anxiety disorder, cognitive therapy on its own has a much better effect over the long term than just drugs or a combination of the two, said the study.
“This is the most effective treatment ever for this patient group. Treatment of mental illness often isn’t as effective as treating a bone fracture, but here we’ve shown that treatment of psychiatric disorders can be equally effective,” said lead researcher Hans Nordahl, Professor at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU).
Social anxiety is not a diagnosis, but a symptom that a lot of people struggle with. For example, talking or being funny on command in front of a large audience can trigger this symptom.
Until now, a combination of cognitive therapy and medication was thought to be the most effective treatment for these patients.
In this study involving over 100 patients — published in the journal Psychotherapy and Psychosomatics — nearly 85 per cent of the study participants significantly improved or became completely healthy using only cognitive therapy.
“A lot of doctors and hospitals combine medications – like the famous “happy pill” – with talk therapy when they treat this patient group. It works well in patients with depressive disorders, but it actually has the opposite effect in individuals with social anxiety disorders. Not many health care professionals are aware of this,” Nordahl noted.
“Happy pills,” like selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs), may have strong physical side effects.
The researchers noted that when patients have been on medications for some time and want to reduce them, the bodily feelings associated with social phobia, like shivering, flushing and dizziness in social situations tend to return.
Patients often end up in a state of acute social anxiety again.
“The medication camouflages a very important patient discovery: that by learning effective techniques, they have the ability to handle their anxiety themselves,” Nordahl said.